In the dog days of summer, no one expects a lightning bolt of unmissable entertainment that is truly epic. But that's what is on tap in "House of the Dragon," a prequel to "Game of Thrones" that blows the doors off with its dazzling spectacle and delicious decadence.
One word: Wow!
"Thrones," based on a series of fantasy novels by George R.R. Martin, shattered viewership records for HBO and amassed 59 Emmys over eight seasons. So "House of the Dragon," drawn from based Martin's "Fire & Blood," has big shoes to fill. On the basis of the six episodes sent to critics (there will be 10 in all), "House of the Dragon" has everything and then some.
Set some 200 years before "Thrones," the devilishly clever new series sets up the past as prelude. The focus is squarely on the Targaryens, ancestors to Emilia Clarke's Daenerys Targaryen (Khaleesi), the Mother of Dragons on "Thrones." Note to dragon lovers, on the new series, the fire-breathers (they number 17) are nothing short of stupendous.
At the start, Viserys (a terrific Paddy Considine) sits on the Iron Throne, made up of the swords of enemies. Sit at your own risk. Rhaenys (a brilliant Eve Best) was a more direct descendant than her male cousin, but sexism prevailed against the Queen Who Never Was. "Men would prefer to put torch to the realm than see a woman ascend to the Iron Throne," she says. Ouch!
Viserys faces the same dilemma when his wife and infant son die in childbirth.
Should his successor be his charming wastrel brother Daemon, played with seductive, Emmy-worthy villainy by Matt Smith ("Doctor Who," "The Crown"), or his headstrong teen daughter, Rhaenyra (a dynamite Milly Alcock)?
Both Daemon, astride Caraxes, and Rhaenyra, mounting Syrax, are expert dragon riders, the key to power in Westeros. Author Martin says the dragons represent the "nuclear option" as weapons of mass destruction. And showrunners Miguel Sapochnik -- the show's director -- and Ryan Condal, writer, present these eye-popping creatures with the mythic majesty they deserve.
The situation escalates when the King's Hand, Otto Hightower (the great Rhys Ifans), pushes the King into marriage with Alicent (Emily Carey), Otto's own teen daughter and close confidant to Rhaenyra, who feels betrayed when her friend marries her father and gives birth to a son.
The backstabbing dials up to 11 when Rhaenyra, forced to marry the gay son of Rhaenys and naval warrior Lord Corlys Velaryon, aka the Sea Snake (Steve Toussaint), indulges her forbidden desire for her own uncle and her celibate knight protector Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel).
Time out here to ask a question: Are you seeing the same parallels I am between "House of the Dragon" and the dysfunctional, ultra-modern media family of Brian Cox's Logan Roy (Roy is French for king) on that other HBO juggernaut, "Succession?" It's fun to draw comparisons and contrasts behind the civil wars that develop for the Roys and the Targaryens.
I'll avoid spoilers by simply saying that Episode 6 of "House of the Dragon" leaps ahead 10 years with Rhaenyra, now deep in her 20s, being played by Emma D'Arcy, and Alicent by Olivia Cooke.
All the actors come up aces in a defiantly outspoken series that tests the limits in its depiction of violent and sexual treachery in the name of family honor.
Those let down by the finale of "Thrones" will be pleased that "Dragon" starts with women seizing their own agency against a toxic patriarchy. No one is immune to corruption, but the moral stakes roiling under the surface makes this outstanding series as timely as tomorrow's headlines and spectacular in every sense of the word.